Dispatches From the American Midwest

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur

Canadian cities face a myriad of challenges. Aging infrastructure and worsening traffic are undermining mobility, with immense costs. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area alone loses $6 billion in productivity due to gridlock each year, which is expected to increase to $15 billion by 2031 (nearly equivalent to federal spending on employment insurance benefits). Certain communities in Canadian cities deal with significant crime problems, while others suffer from a lack of transportation options, and still others have difficulty attracting and retaining residents. While these challenges are daunting in and of themselves, they are worsened by government deficits in Canada, and the shaky global economic situation. We not only have major problems, but we don’t have a lot of money to fix them. So rather than simply throwing money at problems, we should be looking around the world at how other communities are dealing with these challenges. The American Midwest provides untapped wisdom.

While plenty of attention is paid to trendy places like Portland, which throws federal money at any and every conceivable infrastructure idea, or world cities like New York, which has an unmatched concentration of wealth, the American Midwest provides a more relevant source of policy innovations. Spanning 12 states, many of which have very Canadian climates, 65 million residents, and 10 urban areas with populations over 1 million (26 more exceeding 200,000), the Midwest has had to deal with many of the same challenges as Canadian cities. Moreover, the region has a mix of older cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland that have grappled with the same population loss issues as Canadian cities like Winnipeg and Windsor, as well as younger, booming cities such as Minneapolis-St.Paul and Indianapolis, which have had to deal with the same challenges as growing Canadian cities like Calgary and Ottawa. It also has its own bustling metropolis, Chicago, which makes for a good comparison with Vancouver or Toronto.

Citizens often look to the federal government to solve major problems, but lower levels of government are best placed to provide most of the functions we expect of governments. As Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution pointed out in his recent book Metro Revolution, and as we have long been arguing at the Frontier Centre, experimentation at the municipal (and provincial) level allows us to establish best practices that can be emulated. Some experiments will fall flat, but others will succeed. Good ideas will win out in the long run, if we’re open to trying new things. The trick is to empower our cities to do so by un-shackling them from federal and provincial control.

Chicago is tackling unmet infrastructure needs by tapping private capital. Indianapolis has improved public services in this city by introducing managed competition, which allowed private contractors to compete with public employees for contracts. Cleveland has spurred downtown revitalization by creating a state of the art bus rapid transit system. Milwaukee invigorated its downtown by making it a more attractive place to do business. Minneapolis has facilitated mobility in its frigid downtown by de-regulating the taxi industry, and creating an indoor skywalk system that allows people to walk through most of downtown while avoiding the cold. These are all examples that Canadian cities can learn from.

Absent more fundamental reforms, there are many innovations that Canadian cities could (and should) undertake. We should demand more of our municipal governments (and I would argue less of our federal government). But demanding more services doesn’t have to mean demanding more spending. The American Midwest provides us with many good ideas that Canadian cities should adopt.